REPORT: British delegation visits Mauritania – discussion on Libya/AQIM/Economy

Visit to Mauritania of the British Conservative Arab Network

Delegation led by Daniel Kawczynski MP

19th – 23rd June 2011

Daniel Kawczynski MP with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania

Visit overview

The visit to the country was the first by a British Member of Parliament since the current Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell MP was invited as a guest for the celebration of Independence on 28th November 1960.

During the three day visit, the delegation had meetings in order to enhance both Political and Economic ties between the two countries.

The visit took place against the backdrop of the ‘Arab spring’, with the conflict in Libya between the Gadaafi regime and the rebels still a very fluid and ongoing situation. As a country in the Maghreb and with the President having a seat on the African Union Peace and Security Council, this was a very significant aspect of the trip.

Headline findings

The headline findings were as follows

  • British presence in the Country is negligible both Politically and Economically
  • Mauritania would however very much welcome further integration of relations.
  • Although Opposition MPs state frustration that they are not being listened to, opposition exists with open discourse occurring; the current President of the National Assembly stood against the President at election
  • There is an abundance of natural resources including large oil and gas reserves, minerals such as iron ore, gold and copper as well as a large mining sector
  • Secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy are very much underdeveloped, with huge potential for foreign investment into these areas of the economy.
  • Primary sectors of agriculture and fishing are as potentially promising as mining (secondary) and financial and other services (tertiary)

Politics

Meeting with President of the Republic of Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

DK started the meeting by praising the President’s role as the current head of the AU security council.

Upon asking how the President sees the situation in Libya developing, the President admitted that the scenario is a difficult one.

The difficulty stems from the fact that Libya is neither a Kingdom nor a republic, and that Gadaafi sees himself as a guide as opposed to a President.

One of the reasons the President stated for the swift spread of conflict is that with regards to the rebels, there is no organised body for them to co-operate with formally.

Weapons are however being distributed to those who join the rebel’s cause with seemingly everyone having access to arms – this is consistent with reports from Libya stating that AK47s are issued to recruits without proper and recognised uniforms.

There is a lot of confusion in the current situation that the President described as ‘anarchy’ with in-discriminate killing taking place even amongst the rebels themselves. He also commented that mercenaries are aiding a lot of the rebel effort.

Just this select group of problems mean the situation is a very difficult one to resolve.

African Union

The road map the AU wanted to see is ceasefire, then negotiation leading to elections and the creation of a constitution. This is their ambition which would ultimately lead to a single State.

This was acquiesced by the regime when presented to them, however the AU have doubts as to whether they will comply.

A stipulation laid out by the rebels in their communication with the AU however is that Gadaafi must go, and they will not negotiate without this being agreed to.

Responding to this, the AU stated they would discuss this within their roadmap, and that they would agree to Gadaafi and his sons leaving Libya after the election with right to life. This was not acceptable to the representatives of the rebels however, and they did not accept the roadmap on that premise.

The President did state his position that Gadaafi and his regime cannot go on. He did not see the best solution however as one with Gadaafi leaving with transitional council coming in. This would be a change, but one he stated that would not be in the best interest for the Libyan people.

The AU see the best situation being one where Gadaafi and the Council work together to establish a new Government, meaning that all Libyan people would be involved in the solution.

He recognised that there strength in the support for Gadaafi in the country, and to alienate them with any particular solution would make it unworkable. He sees the role of the AU as trying to get the two parties to meet and create an election.

The President did remark however that intervention must not take the form of troops being sent on the ground, and that over time, any mistakes of intervention would be realised.

In the event however that the conflict lasts, this will encourage and breed terrorism in a situation where weapons are widely available. This would be negative for absolutely everyone concerned.

Daniel re-iterated his gratitude of Britain for the President’s efforts in the situation before moving onto the issue of terrorism more generally.

The President started by stating that they receive aid from the EU directly, and have done since his election. The neighbouring countries of Mauritania are all victims of terrorism, and the distribution of that aid needs re-assessing.

Last year, the President stated that Mauritania received €10 million in aid from the EU whilst Mali and Niger however received €40 million and €30 Million respectively.

The President was unaware by what mechanism this was distributed, as taking the case of Mali, this country is known as a base for a number of terrorists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the authorities know of their operations and bases without appatently acting to dislodge them. Despite this, they are in receipt of more aid than Mauritania.

Those who are actively fighting this threat however receive less aid in comparison to those who harbour terrorists such as the AQIM – The President stated that by his assessment, it would be more lucrative for Mauritania to be a country that harboured terrorists than their current practice to oppose and engage them in conflict.

As a result of this stance, since 2008, 67 terrorists have been jailed, and the President stated there was no base for AQIM in Mauritania. Mauritanian troops actually travel beyond their own borders into Mali to engage the AQIM threat – we were informed of an incursion by Mauritanian 600 miles deep into Malian territory.

When Daniel asked why neighbouring countries aren’t as proficient as Mauritania at combating the AQIM threat, the President admitted that this was a concern.

A factor may be their interpretation of their own situation, as there seems to exist an implicit agreement between the terrorists and the Malian authorities.

In winding up the meeting, the President thanked us again for the interest of Daniel in extending the offer of improved relations with Britain. Currently, the most beneficial action that would enhance this relationship would be to re-instate a British Embassy in Nouakchott.

There are many priorities for his administration, such as solar energy, horticulture, water desalination and iron ore, however one key point is the perception of Mauritania from outside.

He agrees with Daniel that since the Arab spring, the old model for leaders in North Africa is not to be repeated, and he remarked humorously he wasn’t elected with a 99% majority.

Further observations

During the visit, we had dinner with a group of Members from the National assembly. The group was made up from both Government supporters and opposition Members.

The members were (in French) openly discussing their disagreements with the Presidents policy, and although they felt their grievances weren’t acknowledged, it was clear that there was an open and free discourse.

Meetings also took place with the President of the Senate, and with the President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir. Boulkheir stood against Abdel Aziz in the election, yet he was able to stay on in his current role.

It was also made very clear from various meetings that the British Council would be welcomed here, and they would encourage them to investigate the establishment of an office.

Economy

Meeting with Minister for Economic affairs and Development – Dr Sidi Ould Bebaha Ould TAH

The first point of note from this meeting was that this department is the focal point of the operation for incoming markets – for example his Department will help and assist with any company that comes into the country and wants to trade. The Minister and his department will be crucial in any establishment of greater trade links.

This ministry is also the centre for all external funding.

Logistically, the country has two main ports; Nouadhibou, the country’s second city in the north is mainly an export port while the port outside Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott serves mainly imports. (see later in report)

Knowing the current lack of interaction and trade the UK has with Mauritania, the Minister when questioned outlined with 3 reasons for this

1) Language barrier is impediment – French is easy to trade with. The problem is similar to that they have with the USA. On this note, the President is keen to develop the study of English across the Country. They are in the process of establishing language centres with special focus on English, which is a purely Mauritanian initiative.

2) Focus of DFID on English speaking counties – they’re not within DFID’s scope of aid.

3) Absence of Mauritanian migrants – ties are made with countries that Mauritanians migrate to, and their co-operation with France and Belgium is greater as they have more migrants there than Britain. Good flow of remittances between the Mauritanians in France and Belgium.

France, Belgium are top traders within the country, however Spain is also of importance.

There are two British Companies of note operating in the country;

1) DANA petroleum –(wholly owned subsidiary of the Korean National Oil Company)mainly involved in exploration.

2) TULLOW Oil

In terms of foreign investment, foreigners are able to purchase land. If you are a foreign investor, you can purchase any land as long as it is developed on, even if it’s personal use.

The Minister did state however that it is very easy for Brits to come into Mauritania to trade and they would be very interested in diversifying their competition – however it is dependent on the financial position of their country at the time of an approach.

The Country has huge potential in solar energy, but they can’t take advantage of it as they haven’t the resources. It needs some sort of subsidy or financial support from the exporting country.

On promoting Mauritania, the Minister did state his keenness to come to Britain and showcase the opportunities of Mauritanian business in London. He has discussed this idea with our Ambassador in Rabat.

Turning to the key industries coming into Mauritania, the Minister outlined the scenario of a 2 sector economy, a more modern sector which is mining extraction, oil (very small production) and fisheries.

There is also large potential for investment into Agriculture –the value added aspect of livestock is the key dynamic in their economy as it is currently lacking. One example in the fisheries industry is on shore processing and freezing of sea products. The lack of the most basic refrigeration and freezing capabilities was abundantly clear on our trip to the fish market on the beach, where the most they had was one side room with a small pile of ice for a shoreline containing hundreds of boats full of fish (see later in report).

Livestock is only exported on the hoof without creating a value added revenues from meat processing. Neighbouring Algeria imports its beef from Argentina instead of from Mauritania. The centre of the Mauritanian livestock sector is in Nema in the Southeast near the border with Mali, but without processing plants it is not possible to supply southern Algeria, either by road or air, even though Nema has an airport, and Algeria is a potentially profitable market for Mauritanian beef.

The Minster made an observation that Mauritania business has a culture of short term profit, and so establishing a plant for processing as such would not be easily set upon.

There is no money however for a feasibility study to be conducted with regards to opportunities in the area, so a British firm would have to come in and undertake a study in order to setup such a venture, but there are incentives available for investors who enter the Country.

The value added question raises question of employment as well. Establishing such processing facilities is important as 50% of 15 – 24 year olds are unemployed and such investment would help lower this.

The Minister summarised his position by expressing a desire that he wants British companies to come into the country, find project opportunities (abattoir, fish processing plant etc), approach him with a proposal with which they will then do all they can to aid with appropriate finance, offer incentives, approach the GCC for finance and have them finally establish a value added project in the country

What was raised as an issue however was Security, especially in the mining regions. The Minister did offer an assurance that the Government can provide additional security for such projects in Nema for example.

Turning to the demand side of the economy, there are no imports of meat into Mauritania as they actually have a surplus owing to its small population of only 3 million people.

Despite its excess supply also of milk, Mauritania still imports U$100mn worth of dairy products as it lacks sufficient dairy processing plants, that could produce amongst others long life milk and other dairy products. With the right investment Mauritania has the potential of becoming a net exporter of dairy products instead of being an importer.

With this in mind, they would welcome a form of dairy plant in order to complete this process themselves. For example they have lots of cattle, but no one to process the milk.

The Minister also expressed as a matter of priority, their interest in manufacturing textiles. They would need complete line from producing cotton to producing textiles

In addition, he outlined the potential of Mauritania becoming a manufacturer of cotton textiles for the African market, using cotton grown in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which is currently exported raw to India and China and from which finished cotton cloth and clothes are imported back into Africa.

There is potential of brick making in southern Mauritania along the Senegal River, but it is lack of power that prevents of such industries being established in rural areas. For instance there is in Nema a standalone diesel generator, but there are plans for a high voltage line to other rural towns.

An energy plan exists for rural areas using a hybrid of methods– using solar during the day and then switching to diesel at night. This is due to the inability they have to store solar energy due to its prohibitive cost.

Minister of Oil, Energy and Mines – Taleb Abdivall

Minister Worked previously for Rio Tinto before becoming the Director General of SNIM, the world’s seventh largest iron ore miner, in which the state still holds a majority share .

British companies are mining in Mauritania.

The majority of the English speaking ones that they have however are Australians.

The Ministry has central responsibility for distribution of the licenses for mining, coal and energy.

Process was stressed as being very transparent and open for distributing exploration licenses.

Average time span from start to finish for a firm mining a new mine is 10 years.

With regards to Energy, they are looking at wind generation – especially in the North.

The Minister re-iterated again his wish to improve the solar capabilities of the Country.

Autonomous port of Nouakchott

The delegation visited the ‘Port of Friendship’ which is the most northerly commercial port of Sub Saharan Africa on the Atlantic seaboard. China had a large hand in the construction and completion of the port in 1986. It is the main import station in the country.

The Chinese are still very much involved with the port and are currently engaged in a building project to extend it.

The port is not only the main import point for Mauritania but it also serves neighbouring landlocked countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso.

It is capable of receiving ships with a flow depth of 9 meters, and is 545 metres long and 45 meters wide. The platform is then connected to storage facilities which house hundreds of contracted storage sections with containers from worldwide.

2.4 million tonnes were handled in 2008, up from 880,000 in 2000.

Exports from the port are dominated by empty containers, and the export also of copper.

The port is equipped with Modern technology such as weigh bridge, tug boats and an observatory with measuring gauges for tidal patterns and coastal erosion.

Visit to Fishermen beach

The delegation went to the coast in order to view one of the one of the centres for artisanal fishermen.

Local fishermen fish in mostly wooden canoes land their catches on the beach. The fish are either auctioned in open air for the local market or auctioned in the purpose built facility with chilled storage units to buyers that deal with European fish and seafood firms. The operation here was of a reasonably efficient standard, however there was no large scale refrigeration available, meaning the fish were left out in the 30 plus degree heat.

There was one small room where a refrigerator from above was creating ice for use with some of the fish stocks, however the scale was not sufficient to deal with the volume of catches of different fish species, which were as a result liable to lose freshness and therefore value as a consequence.

In addition to the lack of refrigeration, there was also an absence of any other automated processing of any kind.

The port was littered with rudimentary stalls that ranged from people gutting and de-scaling fish, to making various broths and dishes with the catches. There was also basic sheds which sold various supplementary goods for the fish, as well as maintenance sheds for the boats and port workers.

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